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Ancient Egypt ... by way of San Jose

The high-tech city boasts a large cache of Egyptian treasures, as well as a puzzle from California's past.

June 12, 2005|Susan James | Special to The Times

San Jose — The armless goddess, like an Egyptian Venus de Milo, stared out from behind protective glass. This 18-inch likeness of Neith, the goddess of war, was carved of wood 2,500 years ago.

"If she could speak," my mother said, "she would say, 'Rah-em-pet,' which means 'The sun is in the sky.' " A free workshop in hieroglyphics had turned her into an instant expert on the everyday sayings of Egyptian deities.

I'm the incurable Egyptophile in the family, and I lured my parents, Bobbe and Royal, along on a trip to satisfy my craving for pyramids, hieroglyphics and mummies. There's been much to fuel my interest in the news lately. The blockbuster exhibition "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is to begin its tour this week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In recent weeks scientists also completed a forensic reconstruction of the young king's head and archeologists unearthed a new group of mummies at the massive necropolis at Saqqara.

For my fix, though, we didn't have to go as far as Cairo. One of the largest displays of Egyptian artifacts in the western United States is at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium in San Jose.

We joined our fellow Egypt enthusiasts in a surprisingly long line of visitors on a rainy day in February. The museum entrance is a dramatic, albeit scaled-down, replica of the forecourt of an ancient Egyptian temple. In the courtyard's fountain was a life-size statue of the Taweret, the upright hippo-like goddess, standing as if dipping her toes in the water. Inside, I expected an altar with white-robed priests and burning bowls of frankincense or myrrh. Instead we found a tomb.

A dark archway from the central mummy room led visitors down into a replica of a Middle Kingdom (before 1000 BC) tomb, each shadowed chamber flowing downward into another. I descended until I reached the lowest room, which held a pharaoh's sarcophagus poised above a pit. For the Egyptians, this room symbolized the duat, or underworld, where after death the king's soul would regenerate and climb back toward the akhet, or horizon.

The space inspired respectful awe. Kids stomping down the first set of stairs grew increasingly quiet as they descended. By the time they reached the dim duat, with its echo of ancient mysteries, they were whispering.

The extensive collection of artifacts belongs to the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, a group based on ideas from European and Eastern mysticism. The American sect was founded in 1915 by H. Spencer Lewis, who later moved its headquarters to San Jose.

Lewis was fascinated by Egyptian history, particularly the Amarna period (about 1350 to 1330 BC) dominated by the pharaoh Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Lewis' interest led the Rosicrucians to fund excavations in the 1920s, and excavated artifacts donated in return were the start of the collection. The current Egyptian-style building opened in 1966.

Mummies and jewels

Besides the 4,000-object museum collection, the grounds include a research library, a planetarium and the Peace Garden. The garden's elaborate layout is based on one discovered in archeological excavations at Amarna, the capital during the reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

The curators arrange the holdings into exhibits on various aspects of daily life in ancient Egypt, such as tomb-building, household life or religious worship. Free gallery lectures, workshops and children's games bring the history to life. The galleries are packed with mummies, jewels and funerary carvings in wood or stone. Miniature figurines working on farms, feasting, brewing beer or sailing boats were placed in the tombs as well so such pleasures would accompany the dead to the next world.

On a carved limestone panel among the Amarna relics, the ever-fascinating Akhenaten prays to his one god, the solar disk Aten, while seven small hands extend from the sun's rays, holding the ankh, or symbol of life, to the pharaoh's lips.

Crouching in another nearby case is a mummified baboon, or at least a purported baboon. Egypt's temple priests did a lively trade in selling pre-wrapped, mummified animals to pilgrims as offerings at Egyptian shrines. Modern X-rays have shown that many were stuffed with sawdust. This offering had a real baboon's head but an X-ray revealed a clay jar body wrapped to look like a monkey. Even in ancient Egypt, you didn't always get what you paid for.

After a walk in the Peace Garden with its ancient plants and replica statuary, we headed across town to the Winchester Mystery House. If San Jose ever had a pharaoh, she would have been Sarah Winchester, heir to the rifle fortune. Like Egypt's rulers, she believed that building brought immortality, and in 1884 on the advice of unseen spirits, she bought an eight-room farmhouse and began a 38-year building spree. Her architects were the spirits she heard during nightly seances.

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